Her Legacy

Meet the Women of West Michigan Who Made History

Constance Rourke
(1885-1941) Author and Educator

Constance Rourke was a valiant, vocal and highly visible intellectual during a time when women intellectuals were rare, mostly quiet and usually invisible. Turning her back on the East Coast and academic settings, Constance Rourke led a rich scholarly life from her modest home in Grand Rapids, where she wrote eight books and over 100 articles. She countered the early-twentieth-century charge that American culture was barren by documenting then little-known, but rich, folk materials, with which she reappraised America’s past and shaped what today we call “cultural studies.”

Rourke’s work underwrote the first flowering of the American Studies movement. Her best-known book, it has been quipped, is “always being rediscovered.” American Humor: A Study of the National Character was first published in 1931 and has been reissued over and over. It was just recently re-edited by rock critic Greil Marcus.

Deliberately writing for a popular audience, Rourke’s books bring to life an American identity based on comedy and uniquely illustrate an intimacy between the humorous and the serious.

So heroic was Rourke’s defense of American culture that shortly before her accidental death in 1941, poet William Carlos Williams dubbed her “Our Moses.” National publications eulogized her for leading us out of the wilderness, and her picture graced the cover of the famous Saturday Review of Literature. In reference to the looming world war, prominent critic Lewis Mumford described Rourke as a model for “the toughness and courage and self- confidence that will enable us to live through the menacing days that
lie ahead.”

Rourke’s leadership in the young America’s search for a “usable past” opened paths for us once. They reopen them once again as we consider among her fertile thoughts ways to help us negotiate a complicated and consciously multicultural world.


The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is dedicated to educating the community and celebrating the legacies of local women, preserving knowledge of their past and inspiring visions for their future. For more information or to get involved, visit ggrwhc.org 

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